It’s an old saw that a picture is worth a thousand words, but is it?
The more I think about process of perception, how we imperfect humanoids see stuff, and the more we think about it, the gooier el groundo getteth. Lonnie and I talk about this human perception thing all the time, mostly in relation to how we see and comprehend the world and people around us. Which is to say, our focus is mostly on how we (and people in general) look and see or don’t see the reality of what’s right there in front of us, the old conundrum of the eye-witness, whose are about as reliable as toilet paper for a roof.
As painters we are both interested in color and shapes and, as a writer, I have a similar interest — because the words I choose and use to tell any story, not only carry a certain rhythm (or music) with them, they also convey a certain tone or color that affects (at least theoretically) the reader’s reception. For a writer, words are colors or think of them as paints. Sometimes I can be graphic and write “a gunmetal sky,” or I can say the clouds were dark and moving slowly, boiling like something ready to escape its pot.” Both suggest a color, but the second approach (not particularly literary) provides movement and drama to create a color which in my mind is sort of blue gray and failing fast.
As a painter I think we often see an indistinct big picture before the details and often this big picture is nothing more than a blob of color and shape. When I paint I try to capture this sort of broad sweep thing and then develop the detail below the big picture. Thus, when I am writing I won’t often describe the details of something as mundane as a chair. I’d rather put the chair into the scene, if it belongs, and let the reader’s mind supply color, shape, etc., to fit the picture forming in the reader’s mind. As the creating writer I can affect this by the other stuff I throw into the scene, though it’s always an experiment. The writer works by revision trying this and then trying that and reading out loud and trying to figure out how a virgin mind will hear what is on the page. The creative process is one of trial and error and with painting you can immediately or quickly see if your approach has promise or not. This sort of decision-making and testing of ideas is absolutely critical to thinking in all academic subjects.
In fact, some of our greatest scientists have made their discoveries not through math but though mind pictures and experiments designed to try out thoughts and when they seem to work only then does the scientist turn to other means, such as math,. To prove the concept or theory. Music has the same relationship to other academic pursuits and this is why schools need to think of these things as extensions of other work, not extra or non-core subjects.
But I digress. Hell my life is one loooong digression.
For a painting or a story, we’re talking about the creation of a dreamscape, one intentionally whipped up by the artist/writer with the objective of evoking the same sort of emotion and intellectual response to reading the story or looking at the picture as the creator had in making it.
There are hundreds of books and articles on this and not just in the realm of the arts. In working closely with conservation officers and police there is a constant reminder of each other to anchor ourselves in situational awareness and most of my partners and I are trading what do you see information back and forth trying to find a consensus from the value of two sets of eyes. If situational awareness fails in a cop, he or she can die. It’s not the same equation for art and stories, though missed details in the creative stage might very well lead to a failed story or picture.
Most good hunters I know are absolutely tops in this sort of seeing what’s really there business and reading the signs around them as a predictor of what might be coming next.
What prompted this thinking this morning was something Williiam Least-Heat Moon wrote in PrairyErth. What the author is talking about is memory and perception and he uses the example of an image of Dagwood Bumstead in the funny papers. Most of us see Dagwood because that’s what we’re conditioned to see, but that is not what we are actually looking at. What we are looking at is a product of what we now think of as pixels, but once were collections and bunches of tiny dots which suggested something greater than the parts – e.g. a picture. But if one focuses and looked closely one could and can see the dots and how they blend. This is a physical example of the difference between looking and seeing. Artists like George Seurat and Bev Doolittle play with this in different styles, but both aimed at the same point.
Of course all this chitchat, theoretical talk does not an artist or writer make. The nutty Gertrude Stein was one of our greatest literary theorists – down some lines – but not quite as good as a practitioner. Better as a critic and theoretician than creator of compelling fiction. If you read the 1933 The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas you need to go into it with the understanding that it is presented as creative nonfiction, but executed fully as fiction. It is the nub of a new form that in some ways has had a lot of unanticipated reach, including the once new” thing” of so-called New Journalism, in which the reporter becomes a breathing character in his or her own nonfiction work, or where the writer imagines thoughts of real-lie characters, same as a fiction writer might.
At any rate, test yourself. Pull into a parking space, take out a pencil and notepad, look around and try to tell yourself what it is you’re seeing, and write those things and observations down in the order you see the things. This will later give you some indication of how your brain works and where your focus lies, or did at that moment because our moods, physical and health condition and all else that makes us, makes us who we are from moment to moment throughout the day. We are not the same second by second and because of this unending personal flux we live in, we are different people at different times and we see differently based on who we are and how we feel. Think about it. if you’re sick with a fever, your observational skills usually are not what they are when you’re feverless.
Ever here the phrase, gorilla in the room? This is based on famous psychology experiment sometimes called the Invisible Gorilla, which has been done in many variations, but the basic design of the experiment is to put people into a situation doing a certain task and then have a gorilla pass through their presence. The number of people who don’t see it is remarkably high, and frightening for eye-witnesses crimes, or for artists trying to capture something.
Artists need to have not only self-knowledge in such matters, but some experience observing others to help us portray people and characters in ways that will most effectively move our stories along.
I’m sure you’re thinking by now that I’m getting painting and writing mixed up. I am, because they are to me the same thing conceptually. Only the physical execution is different. Sculptors, musicians, painters, writers of all stripes, we all attack the problem at hand with similar mental approaches and what we do with that stuff when we apply our skills and crafts, whatever they might be, produces the work of art. The value of the art is in turn then measured by what effect it has on the viewer or reader.
There are some other differences in the arts too. A sculptor for example creates by removing stuff to create shaped space, whereas a writer puts something on a medium to create that effect. But the thinking we do, to a great extent is likely to be more similar than dissimilar.
Tired of thinking. Over